Grips and Ties: Agency, Uncertainty, and the Problem of Suffering in North Karelia


In medical anthropological research, the question of suffering has been a topic of salient interest mostly from two theoretical viewpoints: those of endurance and of agency. The concept “suffering” derives its origins from two etymological roots, those of suffering–souffrance–sofferanza and of misery–misère–miseria. According to the first approach, that of “endurance” and founded largely on Judeo–Christian theology, suffering is regarded as an existential experience at the borders of human meaning making. The question then is: how to endure, how to suffer? The latter view, that of “agency,” follows the Enlightenment, and later the Marxist view on mundane suffering, misery, and the modern question of how to avoid or diminish it. This article follows the lines of the second approach, but my aim is also to try to build a theoretical bridge between the two. I ask whether agency would be understood as a culturally shared and interpreted modes of enduring, and if so, which conceptual definition of agency applies in this context? I theorize the relationship between suffering and agency using Ernesto de Martino’s notion la crisi della presenza. In line with Pierre Bourdieu, I think that in people’s lives, there may be sufferings in a plural form, as a variety of sufferings. The article is based on a one-year long fieldwork in Finnish North Karelia.